Growing up in San Diego, Dan Oliverio was confused by his desires: he wasn’t attracted to the boys he was supposed to find attractive. At age 23, he dated a dancer “with a beautiful body,” but the sex was passionless. “He told me, at one point, I had sex like a closeted husband has sex with his wife,” he says.
Eventually, Oliverio realized he was into dating fat gay men. He calls this realization his second coming out. “I like to say I knew that I was into fat when I was five, but I didn’t know I was gay until I was 20,” he says.
Oliverio now considers himself a gay chubby chaser, a sexual preference that goes against the grain of muscle-obsessed queerdom. “I still get a lot of: ‘Who does he think he is? He must have low self-esteem,’ or people think it’s an ego thing, as if chasers just want someone they can feel better than,” he says. “When I’m at a café with my fat husband, people don’t perceive us as a couple—even if I kiss him! We’re just not what people assume a gay couple ‘looks like.’”
Indeed, for many gay men, the fleshy sack of bones that transports our witty brains is something to be zapped, poked, prodded, and obsessed over. Visit most any gayborhood in America, and you’ll be confronted by an overabundance of protein powder shops, CrossFit gyms, and billboards advertising the latest in slimming-underwear technology. It’s thus no surprise that, according to a recent study, 45% of gay men are “dissatisfied with their muscularity” and are more likely to experience “surveillance,” “appearance-based social comparison” and “pressure from the media to be attractive” than their straight compatriots. Liking your own or someone else’s fat gay body can feel like a radical act.
Michael Loewy, a self-described “big guy,” believes a culture of body modification has created a toxic environment for gay men who don’t look a certain way. “The ‘lookism’—the sort of disgust gay men have about fat people—is a big part of the stigma, and it’s only compounded by this cultural imperative to be ‘healthy,’ ” he told me. “In the gay community, not only do people not want to be fat, they don’t even want to be around fat people. It’s as if, after a certain age or weight, you just shouldn’t be seen.”
Loewy met his chaser partner of 20 years at a Girth and Mirth event, part of a sprawling network of social clubs that cater to a larger gay crowd. While mainstream gay culture desexualizes fat bodies, Girth and Mirthers embrace them. At their vampy and transgressive events, the girthiest chubs receive the most drink tickets, and talent show contestants twirl their tasseled man boobs to the cheers of onlookers. “Members of Girth and Mirth reconfigure their shame by performing their bodies as objects of desire,” writes Jason Whitesel in his book Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma.
Charting the history of Girth and Mirth shows how hard it has been for fat gay guys to fight against marginalization. Nearly a decade before the bear movement came on the scene, Girth and Mirthers marched in the first San Francisco Pride parade, hosted their own pool parties, and took over nights at leather bars. Today, though, the bear community largely has eclipsed the chub community in members and visibility. “Fat is not a popular brand,” Oliverio tells me. Many Girth and Mirth clubs have closed and socialization has largely moved online, with sites like BiggerCity catering to nearly 300,000 chubs and their admirers nationwide.
Oliverio sees the rise in online courtship as a mostly positive development; hitting on larger gay men at coffee shops or libraries can be a struggle, he tells me. “It’s very difficult to cruise a fat guy in public because often they don’t think of themselves as sexual,” he says as we sit in a glassy coffee shop in West Hollywood. “They perceive people looking at them as inherently negative, so you’ve got to be really brave and march up to them, and then that makes you look like a jerk.”
These days, Oliverio counsels bigger gay men who don’t believe anyone finds them attractive. He uses the analogy of a Faberge egg to explain their own appeal. “If I take that egg to the parking lot of Walmart, I can’t give it away,” he says. “But if I take it to a jeweler, it’ll start a bidding war. You know, you may not appeal to everyone, but in some cases people will climb mountains and swim oceans to find you.”
You may not appeal to everyone, but in some cases people will climb mountains and swim oceans to find you.
He encourages chubs to seek out meetings where they can be in the company of other larger gay guys: “For some, it’s the first time they’ve ever gone into a pool in a bathing suit.” Oliverio tells them: “It’ll rock your world and screw your head. What will you do when your strategy has been invisibility, and then all of a sudden you, at 400 pounds, are a sex object?”
That said, simply finding your fat gay tribe does not ensure you a chaser boyfriend. For one, there’s a range of pounds chubby chasers find attractive; if you’re a “superchub” or just slightly pudgy, it can be hard to find someone into you for you. “Some people complain to me that they’re in no man’s land, not big enough for BiggerCity. I’ll tell them, ‘You’re right,’” says Oliverio. However, he adds: “No one is undateable because of their size. If you’re not getting the love or sex you want, it’s not because of your body, it’s because of your relationship with your body.”
That might provide cold comfort to the bigger gay guy who experiences reverse size discrimination in the chub and chaser community. Similarly, Whitesel writes about chubs discriminating against “super chubs,” and Oliverio and Loewy know of relationships that have fallen apart after the chubby partner lost weight due to bariatric surgery or exercise. “Yeah, when someone’s primary attraction is to someone’s fat, and then that someone loses 100 pounds or more, it’s an issue,” says Loewy.
It’s ironic that fat gay men, ostracized by the wider gay community, have created a self-stratified culture that prizes certain body types. The promise of fat acceptance, after all, is the not-so-revolutionary idea that all sizes can be sexy. But until gay society tackles its own body dysmorphia, it’s unlikely the notion of a pecking order simply will go away, even among those who think themselves above it.
Oliverio believes helping fat gay guys accept the source of their shame as a turn on can help dismantle the hierarchy. He typically starts by asking clients what they value about themselves. “When people say, ‘I want people to like me for me,’ I tell them, ‘Well, have you considered that part of who you are is fat?’ ” says Oliverio. “Really, this is a conversation about what are the acceptable parts of us to love, and are you going to banish someone for liking a part of you that they’re not allowed to like—whether that’s your job, your face, or your nationality. What are the parts of ourselves that we make off limits to others?”
Illustration by Eric Palma